The Invisible Homeless

The Invisible Homeless

An undercover epidemic
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We see them at intersections of busy highways, cardboard sign in hand, oftentimes very rugged in appearance.

We see them when we volunteer at soup kitchens and shelters, oftentimes lined up all the way out the door.

We see them in large cities, oftentimes being approached by a police officer.

But when it comes to homeless people, there are more than meet the eye.

Typically, the word 'homeless' brings to mind images like the ones shared above- it is an urban issue, with people living on the streets, asking strangers for spare change. The population is visible, strikingly so. Yes, this highly apparent type of homelessness is generally associated with the alleys and park benches of metropolitan areas.

But there is another type of homelessness, one that often eludes public recognition and policy. It is virtually impossible to find in records and research and is often mistaken for poverty. In fact, most researchers literally call individuals in this situation 'the invisible homeless'.

This invisible category of homelessness is characterized by individuals who do not necessarily lack shelter, but they do lack stability. It is most often found in rural areas, where it is more unlikely to see people actually living on the street and equally unlikely to see an emergency shelter within reasonable walking distance. The general lack of accessible resources in rural areas is why homelessness is and should be an even more pervasive issue in these settings.

While the rural homeless may not be sleeping on city sidewalks or in public places, they are not any less homeless than their urban counterparts. They may be sleeping in their car, a church, an abandoned building, or, most commonly, on the couch of a relative or friend. Rural areas tend to be comprised of closer family units and interpersonal relationships than urban centers, so it is likely that family and friends will take in an individual in a homeless situation. Unfortunately, this pattern has become somewhat normalized and can prevent a person from seeking further services. In general, citizens of rural areas see homelessness as a temporary situation rather than a chronic condition. It is seen as the result of economic hardship rather than long-term and long-lasting influences and stressors. Thus, the individual is often encouraged to seek a new job as the solution to all their problems. However, attributing homelessness to only one factor is not always helpful.

For the past ten weeks, I have been collecting anecdotal evidence of homelessness in rural American Indian communities in North Carolina. A major recurring theme is that individuals and families end up living in homes with several other occupants because the homeowner refused to "let" the needy individual be homeless. The misconception is that as long as there is a roof over their head, the person is not homeless. This is not the case, even though federal policy can sometimes allow it to be as such. Some policies account for housing instability as homelessness, while others do not. In rural situations, homelessness absolutely should include individuals and families who are unable to obtain and/or maintain housing. As in the case of the American Indian communities, just because someone has family who will not let them sleep, literally, outside does not mean they are not experiencing chronic homelessness. Also, rural homelessness, just like urban homelessness, is not one dimensional. It is not simply the result of economic hardship and underdevelopment. It can be attributed to unfair housing shortages, substance abuse, mental health stigmatization, historic discrimination and disadvantage, and severe economic disparity. These have all been cited as issues in the communities I have worked in, but they are under-served due to the disparity of resources seen in rural areas. This is an unfortunate truth across the board of rural populations, and it needs to be addressed.

Homelessness exists everywhere, and it exists in many different ways. Just like everybody else, the people in these situations are experiencing them on a spectrum, and our resources and policies that are being made to help them need to exist on a spectrum as well. Ending homelessness will not happen with a one-size-fits-all approach; we must acknowledge all of its categories.

Remember, just because you cannot see it, does not mean it's not there.

Cover Image Credit: Huffington Post

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The Potomac Urges Me To Keep Going

A simple story about how and why the Potomac River brings me emotional clarity.

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It's easy to take the simple things for granted. We tell ourselves that life is moving too fast to give them another thought. We are always thinking about what comes next. We can't appreciate what's directly in front of us because we are focused on what's in our future. Sometimes you need to snap back to present and just savor the fact that you are alive. That's what the Potomac River does for me.

I took the Potomac River for granted at one point. I rode by the river every day and never gave it a second glance. I was always distracted, never in the present. But that changed one day.

A tangle of thoughts was running rampant inside my head.

I have a lot of self-destructive tendencies. I find it's not that hard to convince yourself that life isn't worth living if nothing is there to put it in perspective.

My mind constantly conjures up different scenarios and follows them to their ultimate conclusion: anguish. I needed something to pull myself out of my mental quagmire.

All I had to do was turn my head and look. And I mean really look. Not a passing glance but rather a gaze of intent. That's when it hit me. It only lasted a minute or so but I made that moment feel like an eternity.

My distractions of the day, no matter how significant they seemed moments ago, faded away. A feeling of evanescence washed over me, almost as if the water itself had cleansed me.

I've developed a routine now. Whenever I get on the bus, I orient myself to get the best view of the river. If I'm going to Foggy Bottom, I'll sit on the right. If I'm going back to the Mount Vernon Campus, I'll sit on the left. I'll try to sit in a seat that allows me to prop my arm against the window, and rest my cheek against my palm.

I've observed the Potomac in its many displays.

I've observed it during a clear day when the sky is devoid of clouds, and the sun radiates a far-reaching glow upon the shimmering ripples below. I can't help but envy the gulls as they glide along the surface.

I've observed it during the rain when I have to wipe the fogged glass to get a better view. I squint through the gloom, watching the rain pummel the surface, and then the river rises along the bank as if in defiance of the harsh storm. As it fades from view, I let my eyes trace the water droplets trickling down the window.

I've observed it during snowfall when the sheets of white obscure my view to the point where I can only make out a faint outline.

I've observed it during twilight when the sky is ablaze with streaks of orange, yellow, and pink as the blue begins to fade to grey.

Last of all, I've observed it during the night, when the moon is swathed in a grey veil. The row of lights running along the edge of the bridge provides a faint gleam to the obsidian water below.

It's hard to tear away my eyes from the river now. It's become a place of solace. The moment it comes into view, I'll pause whatever I'm doing. I turn up the music and let my eyes drift across the waterfront. A smile always creeps across my face. I gain a renewed sense of life.

Even on my runs, I set aside time to take in the river. I'll run across the bridge toward Arlington and then walk back, giving myself time to look out over either side of the bridge. I don't feel in a rush for once. I just let the cool air brush against my face. Sometimes my eyes begin to water. Let's just say it's not always because of the wind.

I chase surreal moments. The kind of moments you can't possibly plan for or predict. Moments where you don't want to be anywhere else. The ones that ground your sense of being. They make life truly exceptional.

Though I crave these moments, they are hard to come by. You can't force them. Their very nature does not allow it. But when I'm near the river, these moments just seem to come naturally.

I remember biking around DC when I caught sight of the Potomac. Naturally, I couldn't resist trying to get a better view. I pulled up along the river bank, startling a lone gull before dismounting. I took a few steps until I reached the edge of the water. The sun shone brilliantly in the center of the horizon.

A beam of light stretched across the water toward me, almost like a pathway to the other side of the river. I felt an urge to walk forward. I let one-foot dangle over the water, lowering it slowly to reach the glittering water below. I debated briefly whether I could walk on water. Though it sounds ridiculous, anything felt possible. Snapping back to reality, I brought my foot back up and scanned the vast blue expanse before me.

Eventually, the wind began to buffet against my left cheek, as if directing me to look right. I turned my head. A couple was walking along the bike path. They paused beneath a tree for a moment and locked eyes. Smiling, the man leaned in and whispered something in the woman's ear. As she giggled, they began to kiss softly.

While I looked on with a smile of my own, I couldn't help but wonder if there was someone else out there in the world willing to share this moment with me.

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